Almost no other team has as many questions ahead of them in 2014 NFL free agency than the Chicago Bears. So it’s important to separate which players will get first crack at new deals and which ones might be gone.
Without a doubt the most unheralded, overlooked signing of the 2013 free agency period. Nobody took much notice of Matt Slauson when the Bears brought him in on a one-year deal from the New York Jets. All he’s done since is help stabilize a pass protection that ranks second in the league in fewest sacks allowed. At age 27 he’s still got plenty of seasons to go and he’s shown plenty of durability. He’s earned a long-term contract.
Forgotten despite some great years in Carolina, the Bears were very fortunate to land veteran James Anderson back in March. He was the ideal replacement for Nick Roach and has stepped in without missing a beat. Though the defense as a whole has looked terrible, Anderson is one of the bright spots. In seven games he has 41 tackles, a sack and three pass defenses. Few appreciate how good he is, but with the team going young they will want his experience and leadership available for the next few seasons.
The quickest way to cash in is by making impact plays. Tim Jennings has done that. In fact he’s really the only member of the secondary who has. Though he turns 30 soon the cornerback keeps finding ways to make opposing offenses pay when they make mistakes. He has three interception, two of which were returned for touchdowns and also a clutch forced fumble that rescued opening day against Cincinnati. His speed, toughness and nose for the ball are all things Chicago wants to keep.
Yes, he’s a kicker but Robbie Gould is once again proving he’s one of the best in the league. His 2013 campaign is among his finest. He’s made 12 of 13 field goals including a career-high 58-yarder. He also has 22 touchbacks on kickoffs. That puts him on pace for 50, topping his career mark of 43 set in 2011. At age 31 he’s not old by kicker standards, which means he’s likely to get a multiyear extension.
Bad luck continues to cast a shadow over Jay Cutler. He was on the fast track to the keeper category thanks to an excellent start to the season. Unfortunately a bad outing in Washington followed by tearing his groin has left his extension chances in a thick fog of uncertainty. He isn’t old at age 30, but his time is running out fast. The Chicago Bears want him to succeed but until he proves he can beat big teams in big games to make the playoffs, the pay day he wants isn’t going to happen.
Similar to Cutler, Henry Melton compounded a bad start to the season with a torn ACL. The defensive tackle was the youngest Pro Bowl player on the roster and in line for a serious pay raise if he could duplicate or top his 2012 campaign. Now all that work is in the toilet. Melton must not only come back from a knee injury. He must also face the reality that he might not get the lucrative deal he hoped for when he turned down the Bears the first time they offered an extension.
Fans would love to see “Peanut” come back next year and avoid a Brian Urlacher-like exit. Charles Tillman has remained one of the best cornerbacks of the past decade and certainly in team history. His ability to create turnovers in so many different ways is staggering. Sadly injuries are seriously hampering his attempts to stay on the field. At age 32 he’s approaching the point of no return. Unless he gets back and can stay on the field the front office may feel more comfortable moving on from him.
It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of why Corey Wootton hasn’t shown up on the stat sheet is out of his control. After the losses of Melton and backup defensive tackle Nate Collins, the Bears were forced to move Wootton inside to fill the void. It’s a position he’s not familiar with and it shows from time to time. He deserves credit for doing it and since he’s one of the best, young defensive ends on the roster he’ll get some extra points from the front office during consideration.
It really is a shame. Veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams was rounding into the form that made him such a productive player in Denver after missing the entire preseason. Now his one-year gamble with the Chicago Bears appears shot. He tore his pectoral muscle against New York, bringing in rookie Jon Bostic who was already viewed as the eventual long-term replacement for Brian Urlacher. Unless he crashes and burns, there is little hope Williams will get another chance in 2014, let alone a long-term extension.
His punt return touchdown couldn’t have come at a better time because Devin Hester was starting to look like another middle-of-the-road return man who had little impact on games. Then he burned the Redskins. So his chances of coming back to the Bears are still very much alive but it comes down to money. Chicago is almost certain not to pay him as much again as they are this year. It’s also a question of roster spots. Can the team keep reserving a space for a pure return man? Unless Hester can three or four more impactful games, that is doubtful.
This is perhaps the biggest surprise of this group. Major Wright had his best season in 2012, starting every game, offering big support against the run and intercepting four passes. Still things have changed. A fledgling pass rush has exposed how vulnerable he is in coverage. Even his tackling has slipped somewhat. He’s not the only one with that problem, but unless he starts to show better discipline in his game there is a very good chance Phil Emery finds somebody more consistent.
A tough decision for sure. Roberto Garza deserves tremendous credit for replacing Olin Kreutz back in 2011 and since then he’s stayed the most reliable lineman on the Bears front. However, he turns 35 next year. That is dinosaur age for an offensive lineman. Considering how important centers are becoming, keeping him might be better but Chicago will have to think about getting somebody younger and hopefully more athletic at the position soon.